Plague

Oct. 30th, 2013 03:02 pm
chickenfeet: (death)
The cough I mentioned a few days ago turned into a really nasty viral infection. I had to leave the Opera 5 gig on Sunday at the interval; pale, sweating and coughing my guts up. Since then I've been having trouble sleeping as every time I move slightly I start to cough again. All in all it's been a rough few days. I did see the quack yesterday. She's reasonably sure it's only a virus but did, comfortingly, mention an outside chance of whooping cough, TB or cancer. I think I'm on the mend and may even brave the office tomorrow if I get a good night's sleep. Apart from the second half of Sunday's show I've missed Opera Atelier's Abduction from the Seraglio and will miss Talisker's Cities of the Mind gig tonight. I may be able to catch the last performance of the Opera 5 show tomorrow if things go really well. I've been in the workforce for 35 years and this is the largest number of days I've lost to one illness.

Review of tenor Chris Gillett's somewhat irreverent books on life as a jobbing singer.

The Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcast of Shostakovich's The Nose.

Patricia Petitbon shakes her booty in a Blu-ray recording of Berg's Lulu from Salzburg.

Messiah Wars.  The line up for the holiday season in Toronto.

chickenfeet: (four seasons centre)
Daniel Snowman's The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera is a fascinating look at how opera, as a social and commercial phenomenon, has evolved over the last 450 years or so.  More...
chickenfeet: (canada)
Incidental Music is a new novel by Toronto's Lydia Perovic.  It features opera, the Hungarian uprising, a fascinating look at life in Toronto through immigrant eyes and lots of steamy lesbian sex.  More...
chickenfeet: (beowulf)
I had been meaning to read something by Halldor Laxness for a while. After all there aren't many Icelandic winners of the Nobel. The book I finally got my hands on was Kristnihald undir Jökli, his 1968 novel translated as Under the Glacier though Christianity at Glacier might have been better. It's very, very strange. It's set in Snaefellsness in the far west of Iceland, land of Laxdaela Saga and the opening of Journey to the Centre of the Earth. A naive young theology student is sent to report on apparently unorthodox behaviour on the part of the pastor at Glacier. Unorthodox conduct by the pastor is the least of it. This is a tale of death, resurrection and intergalactic communication and where the Bhagavad Gita meets Icelandic folklore. Weird but fascinating and very, very funny.
chickenfeet: (srscat)
Once in a while I read a book that makes me go "wow!" because the author has taken a complex topic, presented it in a comprehensible way and caused me to think differently about some pretty big issues. Göran Therborn's Between Sex and Power; Family in the World 1900-2000 is one of those books. It's what the title says; a sociological history of the family, across the whole world, in the 20th century. It's soundly fact based (which hasn't always been my experience with books on gender related issues) yet is not afraid to grapple with theoretical issues or develop theses that are perhaps unfashionable such as the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on family structure and the undermining of patriarchy in Eastern Europe or the role of the United Nations in furthering the rights of women. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in broad social trends and developments.

Going Dutch

Sep. 4th, 2011 04:52 pm
chickenfeet: (srscat)
I have spent a goodly chunk of the last two weeks reading Jonathan Israel's The Dutch Republic: It's Rise, Greatness and Fall 1477-1806. It's part of my long term project to broaden my understanding of the history of early modern Europe. My knowledge of the history of the Netherlands in this period was largely as a sort of adjunct to Anglo-French and Anglo-Spanish conflict. I was aware that there was much more to know but there isn't a whole lot of Netherlands specific history of the period in English. Now 1130 pages, plus apparatus, later I am somewhat less ignorant. It's a colossal, magisterial book which I wouldn't care to summarize. It covers political, diplomatic, social and economic history in some depth and has more than a little to say about art, intellectual life and religion. I finally get where Arminius fits in. For a Brit, it's particularly interesting to see how different key events in British history appear from a Netherlands perspective. I certainly now have a very different perspective on the Glorious Revolution than the one I acquired from classic English Whig historiography. It may even inspire me to read some Spinoza.
chickenfeet: (srscat)
Until last week I hadn't used the Toronto Public Library in years. I had a library card but I didn't use it. This was because my local branch was small and never had anything I was interested in and the inter-branch loan system was difficult to use and slow. Having renewed my card I find that the whole library paradigm has shifted (I realise I am ludicrously late to the party and I probably sound like someone who discovered fire a few hundred thousand years late.) As I see it now we have one virtual library with a series of pick up and drop off points. The "home" location of the book or record is largely irrelevant. I can go on-line, do a catalogue search (now easy rather than arcane) and have anything I want delivered to my local branch for pick up. This is an incredible advance on the old method. I'm surprised the city hasn't publicised it more. Maybe the magnitude of the change isn't obvious to insiders?
chickenfeet: (thatcher)
I have now read all ten volumes of Simon Raven's Alms for Oblivion. I am very impressed. Raven creates a whole cast of utterly believable but revolting characters that one would hate to have to deal with in real life but are enormous fun to read about. The rather frightening thing is one comes away quite convinced that Raven has taken to heart the advice "to write what one knows". Where he writes about things I think I know about he's perfectly plausible and gets details right. Why should I assume he's less accurate or perceptive elsewhere? For a non-mathematician he even manages to write about mathematics and fundamental physics in a non cringe worthy way. (The physics is nonsense but, in the context of the 1950s, plausible enough.)

I'm not entirely sure who I would recommend these to. I think the appeal is broader than, say, fans of Anthony Powell, with whom comparisons are often made. There's something of Ian Fleming but Raven is less facile. There's also something of the post Cold War LeCarré. Certainly the cynicism about government agencies and their self-serving actions is very similar. Also Raven writes about sex more often and in considerably greater variety than any of the other three.
chickenfeet: (widmerpool)
I just finished MRD Foot's SOE; a history of the Special Operations Executive, the British organisation responsible for sabotage and resistance in enemy territory during WW2. You would think it hard to make such a subject dull but Foot manages to pull it off. Maybe he considered the more exciting bits too well known to be worth repeating. The main feeling I got from reading the book was "how on earth did the allies manage to win despite their apparent complete incompetence?" I suspect that the answer to that, like most "how on earth did the allies win"? questions boils down to the Soviet Union though in this case the almost equal ineptitude of German counter intelligence seems to have played a major role.
chickenfeet: (widmerpool)
I've just finished PJ Cain and AG Hopkins British Imperialism 1688-2000. I would have to say it's one of the most interesting books I've read in a long time. The book deals with how British domestic and overseas policies were shaped by the financial imperatives of the economic system that developed in and out of London during the period in question. Central to the analysis is the construct of "Gentlemanly Capitalism"; an alliance of landed, financial and rentier interests that, it is argued, dominated British government throughout the period. A crucial element in the argument is that industrial interests were marginal and largely ignored and, by implication, as have been given a role far beyond their actual importance by economic historians, especially those of a Marxisant tendency. It's an argument I find compelling. I can't see how else to explain London's continuation as a financial capital and Britain's continued status as a world power right up to 1939 despite the virtual collapse of British manufacturing between 1880 and 1925. Certainly the authors can find many, many compelling examples where sound money and free trade were seen as far more central to Britain's "national interest" than the preservation of markets for industrial goods.

A particularly interesting aspect of this line of analysis is how the authors deal with the evolution or self-reinvention of the gentlemanly capitalist elite. Central to this is the creation of the Gladstonian state as a successor to "Old Corruption"; the high spending, high taxing entity that won the long struggle for global supremacy with the French. The expansion and transformation of the public schools and the old universities to be the training grounds for the entrants to this elite is seen as central to the process. The authors also have an interesting perspective on how the Labour leadership was brought into the fold in the 1940s as the Treasury and the City sought to create a new form of Empire out of the Sterling Area.

It's not a light read; 680 pages plus apparatus of dense argument and a fair amount of quantitative data, but it really is one of those rare books that force one to reconsider some pretty basic assumptions about patterns of historical development. It also makes me ask (though it's beyond the authors' scope), what is Britain's role in a world where she is neither a financial nor an industrial power and what does it mean to be British. How do you reinvent a value system that was predicated on a world that no longer exists? Similarly, if the inflow of vast amounts of foreign capital and the nurture of the service industries associated with them tend to lead to a hollowing out of the manufacturing base then whither America?
chickenfeet: (wrong)
I ordered a second hand copy of John Aubrey's Brief Lives this morning. I then found myself looking to see if there was a current Folio edition. The Folio site is organised by category; Fiction, History etc. I suppose one would find the Aubrey under Biography but somehow that didn`t seem quite right. (The question is moot as there isn`t a current Folio edition).
chickenfeet: (right)
Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 is a brilliant book. It's a really nuanced and comprehensive account of the rise of the Kingdom of Prussia from the Mark Brandenberg to the dominant player in the German Reich. Like most English speaking people of my generation (who know anything at all about German history) I was brought up on the trope of "Prussian militarism" as either the dominant force in German policy or, at best, as a kind of cancer in the German body politic. Anybody who took the old European History 1917-1939 'O' level paper will recognise it!

By contrast, Christopher Clark locates a fundamental ambivalence in Prussian history derived from Prussia's fundamental geo-political weakness; centering a triangle of Great Powers. As late as 1860 The Times was denouncing Prussia's "supine" foreign policy. Clark also gives a very insightful analysis of the constitutional peculiarities of the post 1871 Reich and how they were manipulated by various players up to and including the NSDAP. I learnt a lot and I thought much of the ground covered was material I understood pretty well. Highly recommended!
chickenfeet: (thesee)
I just took a wee sanity break and wandered over to the book shop across the street. I see there is now a whole series of Penguins of what might loosely be described as "guilty pleasure" reads of the late 19th and early 20th century with wonderfully retro covers. There is Rider Haggard and Conan-Doyle, Erskine Childers and John Buchan, Anthony Hope and Bram Stoker. There are probably lots more. I was impressed.

Being me though I came away with Robert Hutchinson's bio of Sir Francis Walsingham though I was sorely tempted by a bio of Edward VI.

Salomé

Nov. 23rd, 2008 12:48 pm
chickenfeet: (salome)
I haven't done a book illustration post in a while. This time it's Salomé by Oscar Wilde, illustrated with pochoirs by André Derain. Limited Editions Club 1938.

This was a bit of a pig to photograph because it's bound in soft covers and doesn't want to lie flat.

Three samples under the cut )

Set of twelve pictures on Flickr!
chickenfeet: (thesee)
I've just finshed Paul Cartledge's Thermopylae; the Battle that Changed the World.

Who would have thought that there was anything new to say about Thermopylae? Cartledge, with his unrivalled understanding of Sparta, not only provides new insight into the Causes and Courses of 481-479 BCE (to riff off Calvocoressi et al) but also does for Thermopylae what Fussell did for WW1 in "The Great War and Modern Memory". Roughly half the book deals with the "history" of the diplomacy, war and battle. The other half deals with how Thermopylae has been used in cultural contexts from Herodotus to Frank Miller. Highly recommended.
chickenfeet: (thesee)
I've been reading books that are rather out of my usual run. One I quite enjoyed was Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt which is a 1950s lesbian road trip novel. I liked the writing. I liked the character development but I really do think that 1950s America must have been a desperately dull place to live.

My two other recent reads were books I really liked. John Le Carre's The Mission Song was one I picked off the remainder pile at WBBS. It's vintage Le Carre, which means it's stylish, tight writing about the murky world of secret operations, deniable missions and the like. In this case the subject matter is the continuing horror that is the eastern Congo and the developed world's machinations to get its paws on the mineral wealth while turning a blind eye to an ongoing war that is, still, claiming lives at the same rate as WW1. Le Carre characteristically mixes meticulous research, humanity and a certain cynicism. It's very like the Smiley books in that respect. What's different is the voice. It's told in the first person by the principal character, Salvo. He is the offspring of an Irish Catholic missionary and a local women. Educated in Catholic institutions in the Congo and Britain, he has grown up to be a brilliant interpreter in English, French, Swahili and a raft of the lesser known languages of central Africa. To say more would be spoilerish. Go read it!

Last on the list is Richard Fortey's Life: An Unauthorised Biography. This was one of this years Folio Society freebies and as such might easily never have got read. That would have been a shame because it's brilliant. It's nothing more or less than the story of how life emerged and developed. This is not a subject I'm as familiar with as, say, the debates around the origins of the Universe, so I can't say if Fortey does justice to all the arguments but I suspect he does. The book reads as a very balanced lay tour through the areas of controversy and it's really engaging. The science is there but it's presented with just enough example, analogy and personal anecdote to leaven the lump. The story of Fortey being chased across Spitsbergen by an imaginary polar bear is a particularly fine example. I know now far more than I ever thought I would about slime moulds and cyanobacteria and very interesting it is.
chickenfeet: (blouses)
I finished ploughing through War and Peace for, I think, the fourth time on the flight home yesterday. It really is an extremely odd book and one that no publishing company would touch with a twenty verst barge pole today. The story line is interesting enough and I like Tolstoi's take on the the War of 1812. It has the usual problem of novels of the period of having a bunch of rich, mostly silly, people who treat the ret of humanity with cruelty, contempt or condescension but so it goes. What I found really hard to take this time was the endless, tedious rambling about Tolstoi's incredibly weird theory of history. Truly, my eyes glazed over. Still Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky is one of the few characters in fiction I can easily identify with.

(Actually it might be fun to ask who you think I would identify with or who you think I'm like).

Book Meme

Sep. 21st, 2008 07:38 am
chickenfeet: (thesee)
From [livejournal.com profile] ironed_orchid:

List 10 books you have on your bookshelf that you think nobody else on your friends list has on theirs.

Roger Garaudy "From Anathema to Dialogue"

Andrei Sakharov "Peace, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom"

James Mark "Climbing in Southern Ontario"

James Raffan and Bert Horwood (eds) "Canexus: The Canoe in Canadian Culture"

Walter Strachan "The Artist and the Book in France"

EP Thompson "The Sykaos Papers"

Paul Halmos "Finite Dimensional Vector Spaces"

Robert Proctor "The Nazi War on Cancer"

Douglas Porch "The French Foreign Legion"

Eric Wolf "Europe and the People Without History"
chickenfeet: (widmerpool)
Earlier this year BBC Radio Four broadcast an adaptation of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time by one Michael Butt, who appears to have a long track record as a radio dramatist. Now, I don't envy anyone having to condense Dance into six 53 minute episodes but I have to say that Mr. Butt did a bloody awful job.

His take his rather odd. He explicitly presents Widmerpool as a man who spends his whole life taking revenge on the world because "he was despised at school for being of a lower social class". He also presents Nick Jenkins, especially in his later years, as a rude, bad tempered, ineffective person increasingly hen pecked by a shrewish Isobel. One wonders if Butt had some special reason to dislike Powell and so presents a pseudo-Powell that he can denigrate.

Butt has an obsession with sex and social class but actually doesn't seem to know much about either. His explicit and tiresome harping on sexual themes is actually much less erotic than Powell's very allusive treatment and, frankly, he doesn't get social class at all whereas Powell has an extremely nuanced grasp of an admittedly difficult subject. Oddly although Peggy Stepney's first words to Nick on being introduced to him are to ask about his and Charles Stringham's masturbatory habits (typical behaviour for the daughter of an earl in the 1920s?) when it comes to Gwinnett's necrophilia Mr. Butt goes all coy on us and pretty much ignores it.

Mr. Butt doesn't help himself by some of the more gratuitous changes he makes. His thesis about Widmerpool's class might have made some sense if he had retained Powell's original school which, though never named, is clearly Eton. By transferring the action to "Kenton's; a minor public" the idea becomes rather absurd. Widmerpool is socially entirely typical of that kind of school. He is, for instance, of a significantly higher social class than myself who attended such a school as a scholarship boy. After all, he gets invited to debutante balls. Also, presumably because M. Butt thinks his audience is a bit thick, the language used to describe the school would have better fitted a contemporary comprehensive than a public school then, or indeed, now. LeBas is descrtibed as "head of year" for instance.

The presentation of Nick is odd indeed. It gets particularly odd when Emily Brightman comes into the story transformed into a rather obnoxious psychologist hell bent on explaining why Nick writes autobiographical novels. (Here we get an explicit rerecitation of the Widmerpool class thesis in case Mr Butt hasn't been obvious enough!).

There are all kinds of minor but weird shifts; Oxford becomes Cambridge, the Templers live in Reading; Shrubworth is in Sussex; Nick's regiment s stationed in Llandudno (if nothing else this makes the air raid scene a bit unlikely unless the German high command really had it in for sea birds), Bob Duport becomes Bob Newport, Dai and Shoni become Dai and Morgan (oddly the joke is about having time to "stuff" the girls rather than "fuck" them which seems a strange point to go puritanical) Scorp Murtlock is running an anarchist terror cell and so on. There seem to be no good reaon for these changes except perhaps the last. Given that Trelawney and Myra Erdleigh don't make it into this version it perhaps makes more sense to have Widmerpool move to the "loonie left" rather than to a mystical cult. The rest just make no sense.

There are also a long list of careless errors that a half decent continuity person ought to have caught. The older Widmerpool is described in various places as either "Lord Widmerpool" or "Sir Kenneth Widmerpool". Either way is wife should not be styled "Lady Pamela Widmerpool". The Jeavons flat is hit by a "doodlebug" at least two years before such weapons existed. If the Germans had developed V weapons that could travel back in time the course of the war may well have been different. Nick and Bithel join their platoons in the rank of captain (rapid promotion indeed) and Robert Tolland is killed in the fighting around the Cinque Ports (no word on how the German invasion fared though).

Perhaps unavoidably given the degree of compression some characters appear out of nowhere and disappear equally fast. Odo Stevens' sole contribution is to go cigarette shopping for Pamela, for example.

All in all it's not a very attractive piece of work. It gives the impression of having been knocked off in a hurry by someone not overly familiar with either the books or the subject matter they describe.

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